Peek behind the curtains of Chiang Mai’s remaining bars and clubs

Bars and clubs have to resort to illegal activites to stay in business during the never-ending Covid-19 pandemic

By | Tue 19 Apr 2022

It is past midnight in the Old City of Chiang Mai and the streetlights illuminate the road full of tipsy tourists, street food, and tuk-tuks. The groups socialising wander the streets searching for where to go for the rest of the night to continue their partying. Some pay the tuk tuks to take them home, while others enjoy the street food to fill themselves up, or take a smoke break.

This typical scene of nightlife in Chiang Mai may be a distant memory for many of us. Today, the few who venture out to party after midnight have to face a slew of challenges to keep the fun from fading; they must find a hidden bar which is open illegally, most likely paying corrupt police, or else facing police raids for noncompliance. While it may not be worth the trouble for many, bar owners themselves must continue to strive to survive. Against all odds, some are. But at what price?

When discussing how the pandemic has affected Chiang Mai with Patrick, the new owner of Corner Bistro as of six months ago, he stated, “I can’t tell you how many places I go to grab something to eat and they’re not there.”

While the pandemic continues to harm almost everyone and their businesses in some way or another, bars, clubs, or any place that are open late selling alcohol have to follow additional rules related to Covid-19, and have therefore been especially hard hit.

Covid regulations mean that clubs/bars have had to close early, require guests to show proof of vaccination and/or for them to take a Covid-19 rapid antigen test that shows a negative result. All of these measures have affected business. The constant uncertainty and changes in rules and regulations makes it all the harder to survive.

Overall, the lack of steady income due to the results of Covid-19 has been devastating.

Most club/bar owners have had no other choice but to close their businesses down completely, leaving all of the workers there jobless. “There are three or four bars just on our street that are closing down completely,” added Patrick.

PHOTO CREDIT: Tara Czoschke

Corner Bistro’s founder and ex owner, Kevin, who is no longer in the bar business said, “Some places weren’t as fortunate as we were, they weren’t able to intubate or get the capital to invest into big changes”. To get by these rough times, the Corner Bistro worked on making more money by focusing on increasing their quantity and sales of food, such as adding themselves on Grab and/or FoodPandaBut because we live in a time of never-ending uncertainty of restrictions and health safety Kevin feels, “torn with wanting everyone to be safe and wanting everything to go back to normal”.

Another worrisome problem right now is if any businesses staff tests positive for Covid-19 because the club/bar would be required to temporarily shut down until the quarantine period is over. Patrick took these safety measures very seriously when one of their staff members of the Corner Bistro was exposed to Covid-19. They did this by, “shutting down the place for a week, that was complete revenue out of everybody’s pocket”. Having to go through this with their business makes Patrick feel as if right now, “the whole game is the last guy standing”.

Besides the staff and owners within the club/bar industry, DJs who play at these venues are also being affected by the lack of customers. A DJ that goes by the initials J.J., has been playing for ten years and moved to Chiang Mai two years ago when the first news of Covid-19 was released. In his job he is, “basically your own boss for the most part. If no one is representing you, you find your own gigs and set up things the way you want”. However, since events have been limited he states, “I get affected if I can’t get people together and obviously there have been restrictions and there has always been kind of no clear definition in Thailand”. With so much uncertainty in the air, the DJ can not be as free and relaxed when it comes to finding gigs and instead needs, “something at least consistent where I know if I was going to be at a place that I have my slot and I have my team”.  Most of the time they have a set rate to play at the club/bar but they can also earn money from liquor sales. Though since there is a limitation of early closure, J.J. explains that it ends up hurting, “everyone in the process that relies on liquor sales”.

Living in this situation is exhausting when it comes to supporting oneself and it has gotten to the point where many clubs/bars are choosing to stay open past the required closing time, illegally. The consequences of breaking laws vary due to each circumstance. When it comes to clubs/bars the aftermath of being caught breaking the law results in them having to pay a fine. The amount can depend on things such as the clubs/bars’ capacity and the amount of alcohol on tables…or simply the whims of the police. Causing clubs/bars to still lose money despite their efforts to make more by breaking the law.

Or are they? Behind the curtain of some (but not all) clubs and bars, many undercover activities are going on involving the police. As an alternative to closing later, some are choosing to make a deal with the police by paying them a set amount of money to stay open later. The amount of money or where the amount compares to what a fine would be if they got caught is unknown. An anonymous bar owner A explains that some even, “specialise in the opening after hours but they are very established with the police.” When a club/bar participates in this they usually try to still keep it down by hiding people, and lights, and by keeping the noise down from music and people. It is a bizarre scene to witness.

The first time I went to a club past midnight I had no idea what I was getting into or why the staff was trying to quiet people down. It felt like I was back in high school hiding from the parents who were gonna punish us for drinking. After speaking to others I got an explanation of how the clubs/bars illegally stay open past midnight. Keeping people who have been drinking to stay quiet and collected is a very hard task, almost impossible to control so this shocked me. In the Western world, there is no room for negotiation against the law and if this took place there the club/bar would be taken out of business completely by being shut down.

A, who was enjoying his night off got caught in one of these instances where “they shut the door and try to keep it down, I’d rather not do that. It just feels really childish and you have to sit there and keep your voice down.”

There are many layers and underground works when it comes to these standpoints. Despite paying the police, this does not give them a safe pass and they still have the risk of getting in trouble with the law. This is because that they could get caught by a higher official who will not tolerate any deals. An anonymous bar owner B says that working with the police, “gives them leeway but just because you’re paying this guy doesn’t mean that the lieutenant isn’t going to come in and bust you”. In one instance, bar owner B’s friend who had their place open past the law had to pay 600 baht for every bottle on a table.

No bar owner choosing to stay open past the law is guaranteed to not pay the consequences, despite already having an understanding. Though it feels like this being relieved is some top-secret thing, several bar/club members have expressed how this has become the new normal of nightlife. With bar owner A saying that working with the police, “is just basically another monthly expense here”, and a anonymous DJ stating, “that seems to be the norm here”. Club/bar owners have been struggling to make peace with their never-ending obstacles and money crises. According to the anonmyous DJ, “there are instances where bar owners will meet together to go to the police station directly to have their opinion shared with what they want them to do”.

As complicated as the situation is, it is also very controversial. When asking bar owners whether clubs/bars working with police to stay open later is benefiting or worsening their financial situation, the answers are mixed. Some strongly believe doing so worsens their finances. Bar owner A knows one bar that, “pays their fines after being busted and they still keep doing it so they’re obviously making money and a living doing it”.

Another more drastic controversy is if clubs/bars breaking the laws and paying the police is ethical or not. The answer to this question was more one-sided with bar owner B expressing how “it’s just survival, I don’t think people try to break the law if they could make enough money to be able to do it legally”. We can also flip this question around to ask the club/bar owners if they think what the police are doing is ethical or not. The opinions of the owners were not too positive towards the police with the anonymous DJ explaining the situation as, “like a slap on the wrist, they make it seem like they are performing duties”. The DJ continued to voice that, “there’s no order to things and they make up things as they go, which gives them too much power. They don’t really care about Covid-19, they care about taking care of themselves”.

Many other topics came up such as if these laws are making a difference in people’s health anyways? And also that people know the risk of going out and can choose not to go out if they feel unsafe? The spectrum of the problem is massive with many different factors and opinions coming up. Related to the topic of covid-19 regulations bar owner B stated, “By putting all these rules and all these standards in place it has forced people to go into the grey areas of their moral compass”.

All things considered, there are reasons why clubs/bars continue to break the law but it is ultimately up to personal opinion if this is ethical. Many owners working with the police and having their voice heard about their financial struggles brings hope to change and brings the community together to help each other. The future is very uncertain but since Covid-19 symptoms continue to lessen with the vaccinated and borders open back up, we can only hope that society will start to turn back to normal and the tension in nightlife will come to an end.